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Convicted Of Defamation, Former Kursk Oblast Lawmaker Remains Undaunted

Former Kursk lawmaker Olga Li says that, although she had been frequently criticized for her opposition activities, no criminal charges were ever filed against her until she set her sights on Russian President Vladimir Putin. (file photo)

MOSCOW -- Criticizing the governing authorities would seem to be just part of the job for an opposition politician.

But a judge in Russia's Kursk Oblast disagrees. On June 26, the Lenin Regional Court in Kursk found former liberal local legislator Olga Li guilty of defaming local judge Lyudmila Shurova and fined her 90,000 rubles ($1,525).

The charges stemmed from videos that Li posted on the Internet -- particularly one posted in March 2016 that she addressed to Russian President Vladimir Putin and in which she railed against corruption and lawlessness throughout her region.

In that video, Li accused Putin and the ruling United Russia party of presiding over a "criminal conspiracy against the people." She also accused Putin of pursuing domestic and foreign policies that have devastated the Russian economy and undermined the rule of law.

Shortly after that piece appeared, two criminal cases were filed against Li -- the defamation case and an extremism case. In the latter, prosecutors accused her of "inciting hatred or enmity toward the social group of representatives of the government." That charge, however, was dropped and only the defamation case went forward.

WATCH: Russian Politician Faces 'Hate Speech' Probe After Criticizing Putin (Archive Video Report From April 2016)

Russian Politician Faces 'Hate Speech' Probe After Criticizing Putin
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Li, a 31-year-old single mother of two who is also the editor in chief of the local People's Journalist newspaper, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that she rejects the verdict as "completely fabricated."

"The judge simply read out the prosecutor's charges," Li said. "All our evidence was rejected for no reason and only the testimony of prosecution witnesses was considered. Of course, we will appeal this decision all the way to the European Court of Human Rights."

She is convinced the case was initiated in response to the work of her newspaper. "As a journalist, I didn't let [local officials] live peacefully and ignore the law."

"Of course, the point of departure for this persecution was my criticism of Vladimir Putin because the defamation and extremism cases were started right after that video," Li told RFE/RL. "Naturally, my life changed a lot after that. My nerves have really been tested. I spent a lot of time and strength defending myself and my colleagues. Some colleagues couldn't stand the stress and left. Now we are publishing only an online version of the paper."

She added that her publisher decided to suspend the printed version of the paper in order to focus on his defense after a "fabricated" criminal case was filed against him.

"Nonetheless, we continue to do our work via the Internet," Li said. "I am continuing to fight."

Many of Li's previous videos highlighted local issues, such as the lack of playgrounds for children, suspicious deals under which public green spaces were privatized and turned into commercial projects, and the poor condition of local roads.

Li also attracted attention during her tenure in the regional legislature. She learned about the criminal cases against her on March 24, 2016, when a fellow deputy announced them during a session.

According to local media reports, Li was frequently the target of criticism from other lawmakers for her opposition to Russia's 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea and for her criticisms of various federal and local officials.

However, she noted, no criminal charges were ever filed against her until she set her sights on Putin himself.

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting by Lyubov Chizhova from RFE/RL's Russian Service.